‘Massive Search’: Bad Weather Stalls AirAsia Mission – NBCNews.com
Stormy weather grounded helicopters Wednesday, but almost 50 divers were able to begin searching for the wreckage of AirAsia Flight 8501 after debris was found in the Java Sea three days after the plane vanished over the Java Sea.
Bambang Soelistyo, director of the National Search and Rescue Agency, known as BASARNAS, told reporters Wednesday that the divers were able to get to work but that helicopters were grounded for now by heavy rain and clouds in the Karimata Strait, which divides Sumatra and Borneo. AirAsia said Tuesday that debris from the Airbus A320-200, which was carrying 162 people from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, had been found there, only a few dozen miles from the where the plane was last reported on radar during stormy conditions Sunday.
Calling visibility “lousy,” Soelistyo said at a news conference that “we are in a wait and see” but that “every element is now in their position ready to make a move when weather improves.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspected the site from a military aircraft and said he was throwing all the resources of his government behind recovering the 155 passengers and seven crew members, none of whom authorities said are believed to have survived. The Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency told NBC News that teams searching for the airliner had located at least six corpses; Soelistyo said .
“All parties are involved in the massive search operations to find the AirAsia plane, its passengers and crew,” Widodo said.
BASARNAS has covered 95 percent of the debris site in the Karimata Strait, Soelistyo said. Forty-seven divers were to be deployed, Gen. Moeldeko, commander of the Indonesian army, told reporters after a meeting with BASARNAS.
Soelistyo said the site is at safe depths for diving, allowing divers to work without special tools and offering hope that a cause of the crash could be determined quickly. AirAsia Chief Executive Tony Fernandes said BASARNAS was “very confident that it knows more or less the position of the aircraft,” so investigators should be able to retrieve its cockpit recorders.
The plane issued no distress signal, although pilots sought to fly at a higher altitude to avoid storm clouds. Permission was delayed because other planes were in the area. When the request was granted two minutes later, air traffic controllers received no reply, Indonesian officials said. At its last known location, the plane was near stalling speed.
“Whatever occurred occurred quickly and resulted in the crew not being able to successfully able to deal with it,” said NBC News aviation analyst John Cox, a retired airline pilot and chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, an international aviation consulting firm. “And as a result, the plane is at the bottom of the ocean.”
NBC News aviation analyst Greg Feith, a former investigator for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, agreed that the lack of a distress call indicated that the pilots “were consumed with either maintaining or regaining control of the airplane.”
“The old adage in aviation is ‘aviate, navigate, communicate,'” in that order, Feith said. “Your primary responsibility is maintaining control of the aircraft.”
While families anguished for three days without word of their loved ones, Commodore Hadi Tjahjadi, chief spokesman for the Indonesian air force, told reporters that the jet was actually discovered unusually quickly in a multinational search that included ships and planes from the U.S., Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.
The USS Sampson, a U.S. Navy destroyer, was deployed to the search zone Monday. A second ship, the USS Fort Worth, will depart Thursday to assist, U.S. military officials told NBC News. The Navy said it had also made a P-8 Poseidon aircraft and two dive and salvage teams available if needed.
Searching for aircraft on the opens sea is more difficult than searching on land, and it can often take many weeks to locate wreckage, Hadi said. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, for example, still hasn’t been found almost 10 months after it vanished over the South China Sea in early March.
Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee will lead the investigation with assistance from the French civil aviation agency, BEA, Airbus announced. Two investigators from the French agency — which is involved because Airbus is based in France — are already in Indonesia, BEA said.
Tom Costello of NBC News contributed to this report.